By Marcus Royo
for NM State Media Relations
LAS CRUCES, N.M. - On the evening of March 9, Aggie fans watched as senior designated player Vanessa Valles' home run sailed over the outfield wall giving NM State head coach Kathy Rodolph her 400th career win and a season sweep of rival UTEP.
The home run marked Valles' first homer as an Aggie and was just one of several milestones in an impressive 2011 campaign.
This season the NM State softball team has rewritten the record books while putting the squad in position to battle for the outright Western Athletic Conference (WAC) championship. That quest begins Friday night against Boise State to kick off the Aggies' senior weekend.
The Aggies' program record 10-game win streak was snapped last weekend at Hawai'i and this weekend's opponent, Boise State, slipped past the Aggies to move into first place in the conference standings by a game. As a result, the winner of the series this weekend will claim at least a share of the WAC regular season title and earn the top seed in the WAC Softball Tournament next week in Fresno, Calif.
Other significant milestones for the Aggies this season include a program record 14 WAC wins and the best overall winning percentage in program history. The Aggies' 37 wins ranks second all-time in the school record books.
NM State boasts three victories over top-25 opponents this season including two over then-No. 23 Fresno State last month, marking the first series win over the Bulldogs in program history. Just prior to their 6-0 program-best start in the WAC, the Aggies knocked off their first ranked opponent in then-No. 14 Nebraska.
It all started back in February with a 6-0 start and a Hotel Encanto Invitational title in Las Cruces. A few weeks later, NM State clinched the UTEP Invitational that coincided with a program-best start of 14-3. While in El Paso, Rodolph claimed her 200th victory at NM State with a win over North Dakota.
Currently, the potent Aggie offense ranks among the nation's top 10 in four statistical categories led by the country's seventh-best batting average of .338. Senior Hoku Nohara has led the nation in home runs all season and currently boasts a single-season record 21 homers. She is one shy of the WAC record of 62 coming into the weekend.
Fellow seniors Kandis Jones, Kylie Randall and Ashley Maroda also set career, single-season and single-game records this season. The seven seniors in the class of 2011 have collected the most wins in program history with 127 victories in four years.
Coach Rodolph is quick to point out that achieving these milestones is a collective effort of her coaching staff.
"It starts with my staff," Rodolph said. "We believe that there's no substitute for work ethic."
Rodolph went on to explain that it also takes students who buy into the philosophy, as well as a supportive administration. Every day is a challenge, according to Rodolph.
When Rodolph took over as head coach at NM State, the softball team had a pitiful 8-55 record, and was in the bottom 25 in the nation. It wasn't easy, but she turned the program around, eventually becoming a top-100 team.
The NM State softball team has been winning not only on the softball diamond, but also in the classroom. The Aggies boast a 99 percent graduation rate, and they ranked among the top 40 in the country academically last season. The team also has claimed the Aggie athletic department's award for community service involvement in each of the past three seasons.
"I'm very proud that our kids are going to win at life, not just win on the field," Rodolph said. "It's about a complete philosophy of how we do things."
Associate head coach Cat Heifner said she attributes the team's success to surrounding themselves with players who fit into the philosophy of the team.
"Standing by it, and finding the right student athletes who want to participate in it, and the right staff who buys into it as well," said Heifner. "And the right environment."
The Aggies are always looking for ways to grow. Heifner said that this year the players have been fresh enough mentally to keep finding ways to get better.
"We try to keep everybody focused one game, one pitch at a time," Heifner said. "We're not looking forward, we're not looking back. We're trying to stay present."
Maintaining stability is an important concept for assistant coach Tiala Tagaloa. The coaches may try new things, but Tagaloa said it's always about getting the team on the same page.
"We try to come through with a clear objective of where we want to be," Tagaloa said. "If everyone does their job, it makes everything run seamlessly, like a clock."
What is it like for a player to be a part of Rodolph's successful team? Junior Tiare Jennings is glad to take part.
"She's a good coach, and she deserves the credit," Jennings said. "She tells us that she always has faith in us."
So after exchanges of "good game," and the lights shut off at the NM State Softball Complex, what could one expect from coach Kathy Rodolph? For a coach that takes it one pitch at a time, the answer is certainly "business as usual."
Coach Rodolph is the longest-tenured and winningest softball coach at NM State and she and her staff have the program primed for success.
Come out to cheer on the Aggies in the WAC regular season title series this weekend. NM State and Boise State begin the three-game series on Friday with a single game at 6 p.m. MT at the NM State Softball Complex. The series and championship will be decided during a doubleheader at the Complex on Saturday beginning at 2 p.m.